Bagel and Schmear? Not Here

As it turns out, many Ph.D. students resent the expectation that they bring food and drinks to their thesis defenses. UCLA's psychology department just said they shouldn't do it.

August 14, 2019
 
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It’s a common tradition within graduate programs: students bring food and drinks to meetings with their thesis committees, especially to their final defenses. And for many years, the psychology department at the University of California, Los Angeles, was no exception.

No more. The department’s faculty Executive Committee recently voted to end the unofficial practice, citing the added stress -- financial and otherwise -- it puts on students.

"We would like to move away from the expectation that oral exams be catered," reads a notice sent to UCLA's psychology professors and graduate students. "The Executive Committee has approved the addition of a simple rule to our Grad Handbook, stating that students are not allowed to provide food or drink for prelims/final oral exam."

Anna Lau, professor of psychology and vice chair of graduate studies, who wrote the notice, said Tuesday that there was "never an explicit statement that students must bring food." Rather, it was "a tradition that was transmitted and maintained through social norms."

In any case, she said, "my sense from students is that many are grateful that this is no longer an obligation."

Kate Wassum, an associate professor in the department, said that faculty members are “in positions of authority and need to be open to students’ concerns, and what we can do to correct them.” There’s always more to do, she said, but “this was one small, easy thing.”

Not every faculty member in the department expected students to bring refreshments to their meetings. Wassum didn't, for example. She first told students that they weren't expected to, and when that didn't work, she arranged to have food and drinks there herself. But there remained a general expectation in psychology that students would bring something like coffee and snacks, depending on the time of day, when they met with their faculty committees for their preliminary and final oral examinations. And while some students may not have minded, others found it distracting to think about buying, making and, perhaps especially, paying for food. Preliminary meetings typically include four or five committee faculty members, but final defenses can include audience members, as well.

Discussions about ending student-catered meetings accelerated following the publication of an opinion piece in Science last month called “Committee Members Shouldn’t Expect Ph.D. Students to Serve Coffee and Pastries.” Kate Bredbenner, a graduate fellow at Rockefeller University, wrote that she “never thought I would spend so much of my time and money setting up still-life-worthy displays of flaky croissants and shiny fruit for people who are judging my science, and that of my colleagues.”

Yet at her university and many others, she said, “students bring food to our thesis committee meetings and defenses, adding to the already sky-high pressure.” Bredbenner’s “first taste of it came five years ago, for my first committee meeting. I prepared furiously. I meticulously proofread my written proposal and aligned all the figures. My slides all used the same font. I had even prepared some extra slides to address possible questions my judges might ask.”

Even so, she said, “I was sure the meeting was doomed -- because I didn’t know how to make coffee.”

The solution to the problem, Bredbenner said, “is easy: Committees shouldn’t expect students to provide lavish spreads, or anything at all. We shouldn’t have to spend our money buying overpriced fruit salad or know how to make coffee to be considered successful graduate students. Our research should be enough.”

The piece sparked immediate conversations, not just at UCLA. A graduate student in Toronto who runs several social media accounts under the name Ph.D. Diaries, in part to critique the culture of graduate school, said on Twitter that she’d forgotten to bring coffee to her most recent committee meeting and was called out for it.

Some faculty members responded positively, at least online. One professor said she’d never thought about the “inequity” of the matter, and that she’d bring it up at her home institution. “You can’t underestimate how dense faculty are, even the well-meaning ones,” that professor wrote to Ph.D. Diaries.

Noel Brewer, professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, responded that his department already “forbids doctoral students from bringing food and beverages to proposals and defenses. We train scientists, not caterers.” Brewer said he also pays for “trainees’ meals when we go out at conferences. And [he takes] them for a celebratory meal after the defense. Students should not pay.”

Brewer said this week that a colleague launched the policy seven years ago, as dissertation defense meetings "were becoming increasingly elaborate with tablecloths, refreshments and heavy hors d’oeuvres. We found it strange to have scientists turn into caterers."

The department also found it "inappropriate to set up expectations that put undue burden on people with limited means," Brewer said. "Many of us were just embarrassed to make such implied demands of students, given that many of us have a policy of always paying for trainees when we invite them to meals or drinks."

Ph.D. Diaries (who would like to remain anonymous) also said this week that she typically brings a carton of coffee to her meetings and intentionally didn’t bring it to the meeting she wrote about, to see what would happen.

“I think the general notion is absolutely ridiculous,” she said of student catering. “We are the only people at that table who do not make a living wage. I should not be expected to fund coffee.”

When her adviser told her she forgot the coffee, she said she responded like this: “But I didn't forget to bring everything else we need for this meeting -- the presentation, laptop, report, etc.”

At UCLA, a few professors questioned the change initially. Wassum said that in some instances, professors didn’t really know how students felt about bringing food. It is, of course, an awkward thing to bring up.

The department will now provide coffee and water at oral defenses, following a planned move.

However divisive the custom might be, it’s not meant to be punitive or stressful. Wassum said that the general mood at a thesis defense is celebratory. It’s a big moment in a student’s life. And to many, food and drink signal that. Defenses also tend to happen at a busy time of year, when people might need pick-me-ups.

“I myself find it totally unnecessary. If I need coffee, I can get coffee,” Wassum said. Still, “these things can be nice to have around, but students don’t need to be the ones to provide them.”

Lau wrote in her notice to students and faculty members that "one lovely aspect of this custom was that students often made agreements to support each other by providing refreshments for each other’s oral exams. We hope that students establish new 'buddy' traditions for supporting one another during these major hurdle steps (e.g., happy hour celebrations, being in the hallway for support during committee deliberations)."

The department also will restart the tradition of having a staff member take a photo of the candidate with their committee after the final orals, Lau said.

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